Charter a Week 22, part 1: KING Charles the Simple

He did it! After five years of struggle and, let’s be real, very limited practical success, Charles the Simple finally became West Frankish king. Most of the reason for this appears to have been the fact that Odo was remarkably willing to deal with Charles despite his generally holding the upper hand. Charles’ legitimacy, as the son of a king, is probably the key factor here. Odo was childless (there is a reference in a Breton charter to a man named Guy, son of King Odo, which is strange and probably interpolated), and there’s no reason to think that merely being a king’s brother gave Robert of Neustria any claim on the throne.

And so, early in 898, Odo died, and was buried in Saint-Denis. A month or so later, Charles the Simple came there and issued this diploma.

DD CtS no. 10 (8th February 898, Saint-Denis) = ARTEM no. 3042 = DK 6.x

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Charles, by grace of God king.

If We lend Our ears to the petitions of servants of God for places given over to the saints, We in no way doubt that this will benefit Us in obtaining both prosperity in the present life and blessing in the future life.

Wherefore let it be known to all the faithful of the holy Church of God, to wit, present and future, that the venerable brothers of Our special patron lord Dionysius and his companions, coming before Our presence, appealed to Our Clemency that We might command the immunity within the castle of the same place, which has been newly constructed, concerning land which the brothers have been seen to hold from olden times for divers offices and needs to be reinforced by a precept of Our authority.

Lending the ears of Our Clemency to their fitting petition, because it appeared to be valid and advantageous, with the consent of Our followers, that is, venerable bishops, the venerable bishop Honoratus [of Beauvais] and the equally-illustrious pontiff Ralph [of Laon], and also Our most beloved mother Adelaide, We established through this precept of Our Royal Dignity for the same greatly devoted worshippers of that venerable place that, from the gate of the castle which overlooks the chapel of Saint-Rémi up to the gate which was of old established in front of the paupers’ hospice, to wit, the paupers’ hospice itself and the land which is seen to pertain to their bakery and the whole little grange of the brothers with the rear gate which they made to allow egress from divers offices, and also as well the land which is seen to pertain to the lighting of Saint-Denis, and, on the side beyond the Crould, from the guest’s dormitory which has been there for a long time up to the cobblers’ workshop, no-one should ever presume to inflict any disturbance or trouble upon them, nor should any lodging manager offer lodging to anyone therein. Rather, let it quietly persist under the power of the same servants of God without being dominated by anyone, so that, having removed all excuse for disturbance or violence from anyone, they might be able to soldier for the Lord more freely in the same sacred abbey.

Moreover, because they have in the aforesaid castle endured no small shortage of wood, which they were once accustomed to bring from the woodlands of Brie by boat, they also humbly appealed to Us through Our said followers that We might bestow on them the wood which is named Coye to supply wood for needs of these sort, and the homestead which is seen to lie there, with bondsmen of both sexes, and vineyards, meadows, pastures, fields, waters and watercourses, and whatever is recognised as being beholden to that homestead.

Not denying that petition in any way either, We voluntarily bestowed on them them that for which they importuned, for love of God and because of their no small advantage, concerning which largess of Our Highness We decreed this precept of Our authority be made. Also, so that through the course of times to come it might in the name of God obtain a greater vigour of firmness, We confirmed it below with Our hand and We commanded it be signed with the impression of Our signet.

Sign of Charles, most glorious of kings.

Heriveus the notary witnessed and subscribed on behalf of Archchancellor Fulk [of Rheims].

Given on the 6th ides of February [8th February] in the first indiction, in the fifth year of the reign of Charles, the most glorious of kings, in the first of his restoration of the kingdom’s unity.

Enacted at the monastery of Saint-Denis.

Happily in the name of God, amen.

CW 22.1 898
The diploma, taken from the dMGH as given above.

To start with, the petitioners, who are a delicately-selected bunch. The significance of Queen Adelaide, Charles’ mother, is fairly self-apparent: she was Charles’ closest supporter and had stayed with him during the wilderness years. Ralph of Laon, on the other hand, had been one of Odo’s supporters and had probably been in Laon when Charles and Zwentibald attacked it. Honoratus is, in this reading, a mediating figure: although loyal to King Odo, he had been quite close to Charles’ backer Archbishop Fulk of Rheims. What we have here, then, is a spectrum of petitioners from across the political spectrum of the last few years.

Even more, this diploma was issued at one of the core royal monasteries, Saint-Denis, a short while after the previous king was buried there. We must, I think, see this diploma in terms of Charles visiting his predecessors’ tombs and, finally, getting that link to St Dionysius he’d wanted years previously. This diploma therefore stands as a performative statement of Charles’ kingship.

It has even previously been analysed that way by Geoff Koziol. Koziol, however, gets the context of this diploma wrong by reading it as Charles’ insult to Robert, usurping Saint-Denis from the control of the Robertian family. This seems implausible. Koziol assumes that Robert would have thought that Saint-Denis should have gone to him, which seems unlikely – equivalent royal sites such as Compiègne and Verberie passed uncontroversially from King Odo to King Charles rather than to Odo’s brother Robert, and given Saint-Denis’ importance to kingship, why should it have been different? In fact, a new king setting himself up at Saint-Denis was an entirely normal thing to do. Charles’ regime was off to a competently-executed start.


9 thoughts on “Charter a Week 22, part 1: KING Charles the Simple

  1. ‘There’s no reason to think that merely being a king’s brother gave Robert of Neustria any claim on the throne.’

    Dumb question, but why is this the case? The Carolingians seem to be reasonably happy with fraternal succession in the absence of a clear legitimate son.


    1. What a wonderful question! This is a subject on which I have opinions

      Basically, as I read it, the Frankish world likes its kings to be, in order:
      1) The son of the last guy
      2) Already crowned king
      3) The son of a king

      There’s a lot of wiggle-room here: these are expectations, not norms. There are some other complicating factors: illegitimacy, for instance (although this isn’t anywhere near as debilitating as often presumed; Bernard son of Charles the Fat is probably the clearest-cut case here). Another problem appears to be people thinking ‘the last guy’ wasn’t very good: this likely scuppers Charles Constantine and Ralph of Provence, creates problems for Louis III and Carloman II, and is probably a big deal for Hugh of Lotharingia as well. (By contrast, people seem to have liked Karlmann of Bavaria and this weighed in Arnulf of Carinthia’s favour much, much more strongly than illegitimacy counted against it.) And, of course, the whole system is predicated on there being a few extra kings’ sons and kings hanging around in case of dynastic emergency – hence why 888 ends up such a mess. “There’s only one king’s son who’s already a king and he’s staying in Bavaria and not moving and OH NO VIKINGS“, or something like that – hence why you end up with about four proposed kings in the West until the situation stabilises.

      If you don’t fit any of the three criteria above, though, there’s no real indication that you have any claim to be king outside dire emergency. Odo might have been made king in an emergency, but Robert of Neustria was just the son of Robert the Strong, not of a king – his own coronation in 922 was by his own account another emergency situation, not as Odo’s heir. There’s no indication in contemporary sources that he was considered to succeed Odo in 898.

      This can be paralleled, because there’s a couple of these guys hanging around, I mean brothers of men who were made kings but were not born to kings, and none of them ever succeed their brother; or even give a hint that they were in the running. In addition to Robert and Odo in 898, there’s Richard the Justiciar and Boso of Provence in 882/888/890 (Provence is weird) and Hugh the Black and Ralph of Burgundy in 936. In short, ‘fraternal succession’ per se doesn’t really exist.


      1. I’m happy I stumbled upon such a fruitful topic of conversation.

        That’s a really interesting point, and everything you say sounds very reasonable and the examples are very compelling. I am a little concerned that the tendency of Carolingian rulers to make all of their throneworthy sons kings might obscure the importance of fraternal succession, i.e. does Carloman II succeed Louis III because he’s his brother or because he’s already a king?

        I’m always troubled about Arnulf as a case study in why illegitimacy doesn’t matter. Following his father’s incapacitation, he more or less takes over the Bavarian royal court. If any illegitimate son in the ninth century was ever in a position to seamlessly succeed his father, it’s Arnulf. And yet Louis the Younger was able to take control in time for Karlmann’s death to take place while he’s in charge. The Annals of Fulda makes it clear that there’s some grumbling, and Arnulf has enough backing to keep his powerbase in Carinthia, but Louis is able to make his takeover stick. While this probably just reflects the balance of power, as Arnulf is having to deal with some opposition within Bavaria, it still suggests to me that there is ambiguity about his status (Hincmar runs with this in AB 879, but then again Hincmar).


      2. “I am a little concerned that the tendency of Carolingian rulers to make all of their throneworthy sons kings might obscure the importance of fraternal succession”

        Well, yes, indeed. There aren’t a lot of uncrowned lay adult kings’ sons hanging around during the ninth or tenth centuries, and the situation is further complicated by the question of the ties of wannabe kings: brothers are going to have a lot of the same connections. This is clear in the Carloman/Louis situation you bring out above: the people who made Louis III sole king were also the people who a little before tried to make Louis and Carloman joint kings so he’s an obvious person to go to. On the other hand, the situation after the death of Louis the Stammerer is a nice reverse of this situation – Gozlin of Paris and Count Conrad actually have ties to Louis the Younger, so he gets to look like a plausible candidate as well despite not being a brother because he fulfils at least two of our criteria. If you do look at uncrowned lay adult kings’ sons in situations where there are no other heirs then you’re pretty much looking at Charles of Lotharingia and he bottles it. Even by 987, when the idea of ‘the royal dynasty’ is much more significant than in 888, it’s not enough. Of course, this isn’t a large sample size, but if we go one social rank lower and look at counts, then the various heirs of Heribert II of Vermandois in their turn tend to have their lands passed to favourite – paternal or maternal – nephews rather than to each other. In the sense that fraternal succession is important, then, I don’t think it’s because the brother has a familial, ‘legal’, right to succeed so much as the brother is more likely to have a larger number of the same attractions as his deceased predecessor in terms of status, connections, etc.

        As for Arnulf, yeah, absolutely. This is one of my problems with the bits of Sara McDougall’s book on illegitimacy – I think she puts too much whitewash on how much of problem it was. It clearly wasn’t a disqualifying, or even necessarily a major, problem, but it wasn’t nothing and it could work against a candidate.


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